Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Big Bellies and Wheelchairs, Oh. My.

"That man has a big tummy, Daddy. That man is in a wheelchair, Daddy ..." a cute little boy has noticed me and is commenting on what he sees to his father. His father is wild with embarrassment and tries to distract him. The boy, innocently, repeats what he said, figuring his father didn't hear him. Dad, not knowing what to do, pulls his son gently away and I see them a few feet from the elevator I must take on my way out. The father is talking quickly, I hear his voice saying, "How would you like it if people ..." before it trailed off.

We had no choice to pass them on as we made our way to the elevator. I was warring within because I don't like to ever intervene between parent and child. I lost the war. I spoke to father, "I just wanted to say that, if you are worried about your child's words and the effect they had on me, there was no problem with what he said. He was simply describing me, not calling me names, not valuing or judging me, not demeaning me in any way. He just noticed and wanted you to notice too. I know I am different. I'm OK with others knowing it too. You have an observant little boy, next time just say something like, "Yes, that man is big, that man is in a wheelchair, we live in a world with lots of different kinds of people." The father, listened quietly, then said, "Thanks, I never know what to do in situations like that.

I've always thought that part of the core of discrimination and the source of bullying is, somehow, the social need to disacknowledge what's plain to see. I was once in a store where a child said to her mother, "He's fat mommy." She responded, quickly and oddly, "No he's not, don't say things like that." Firstly, I am, and I am aware that I am. Secondly, I don't want to be made unspeakable. Acknowledge and move on. Don't move me, and those like me, into the shadow world of where the unspoken live.

People with disabilities have been working to eliminate those horrid attempts at 'prettying up' language around difference. You know terms like 'differently abled' and 'mentally challenged' and 'handicapable'. He have disabilities, dammit, get over it. We don't need or want language to euthanize difference. It exists.

So, when Ruby or Sadie point out a difference between me and others, I simply say, "yes, I am big," "yes, I am in a wheelchair," and that seems to be a conversation killer. They noticed, it's true, now it's no longer particularly interesting.

Noticing my difference isn't the same as staring at it. A child describing what he sees to his dad is not the same as calling a name.

I also wanted to stop the dad with the 'how would you like it if someone called you ... (pick something).  Firstly, the boy didn't call me a name. And secondly, don't make my difference into a bad thing to be.  I didn't want the kid walking away thinking that there are some people who are so out of the mainstream that you have to pretend that either they or their difference doesn't exist. I also didn't want him to think that it was a bad thing to be who I was.

Afterwards I was aware that I was very lucky, I had a dad who didn't get upset at my intrusion, who listened carefully to what I said. I was also lucky to have had a little boy to listened very carefully to all that I said. I don't know what he understood but he knew that I could talk to his father, as an equal, and that I wasn't ashamed of who I was.

The little boy waved to me when they headed back towards the store they'd left. He was smiling. I gave him a thumbs up and he grinned.


Kris S. said...

Well said, sir.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering, do you think calling someone "fat" could be considered name calling? I know I would probably use a different word myself as I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of people who would not want to be described as "fat" (they would say big/curvy etc. perhaps)

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Beautiful, Dave. What a great teachable moment -- and how wonderful that the man had an open mind and was willing to hear you!

Julie H. Rose said...

Thanks and "pleased to meet you," Dave! I went from having an invisible disability to a visible one last week. I will be using a wheelchair, walker, or cane every day from now on depending on how I am feeling that day. I'm used to the cane. Right now, though, I'm confined to a bed, and so it's good to read what life has in store for me. I so dislike euphemisms. Telling kids to call reality by false and or prettified names makes no sense to me. I don't know what's wrong with the word "fat." These days people say I'm skinny and it's true. I'm losing my hair, so I may be bald soon. Would it be better to say I'm. . hmmm. . .I'm not creative enough right now to come up with a funny expression for it. I'm the skinny short balding sick cripple. Is that okay? Sorry this is overlong. . .!

spectrummom said...

My 15 yo with autism points out people of color. "Look, she's black. I mean African-American." "wow, You are SO black." And also "Why are you so fat? Do you eat too much?" As much as I would like him to stop, and we talk about it, the more he hears about how it is proscribed, the more he needs to talk about it. The other side of this coin is, he is not judging, he is curious and comments. He is not at the age where this is cute any more. Most people are very kind about it. And certainly he is someone who people talk about, but doesn't seem to realize that.

Fragments said...

Hello Dave,
I absolutely LOVE the eloquence and truth and candor with which you speak/write. You gave such perfect words to the very idea I posted about earlier this morning on my blog about being "different" and how a person comes to understand it, process it, learn it, live it in the world.
So wise you are. I love hearing your thoughts. Keep them coming! Thank you for sharing, as always.

Anonymous said...

Children talk to me about my difference without predjoudice. The ask; why are your lips purple? why are your fingers looking funny?

This post made me aware why I feel uneasy about someone noticing. I feel unease because I dont look like the average woman at my age, the one we see in magazines and television.

But even this changes...

Dave I learn so much from your blog - sometimes it even makes me feel "lighter at heart".

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the answer you gave. Well done!

Cynthia F. said...

Yes! Another tip I can use with my kids. Thanks Dave, I will be modeling this behavior.

Rickismom said...

The father reacted very well.
Now here is another topic to discuss: It has been accepted in the disability community to reprove/condemn those who use the word "retarded". This is because it is often used (as with "retard") as an insult.However, WHATEVER word or euphimism we use to describe the reality of a person's mental ability impairment (and some times this IS necessary to explain things), eventually that word comes to have the negative connotations that society attaches to it. The problem is not, in my mind, the word per se, but the attitude behind it's incorrect usage.
Annonomyous, in my mind "fat" in itself is not the problem, but the attitude that someone is inherently worth less because he is overweight, and "fat" is almost always used that way.
I know that I tried to teach Ricki that yes she was "retarded", but that "retarded" just meant that she had trouble thinking, and was not something bad, simply something that she needed help dealing with.And yes I told her that she would always have to deal with people who would see her as worth less because she was different. But that we both knew that she was just as good and valuable as anyone else. But she read the non-verbal cues VERY well and knew an insult when she heard it.But eventually she was able to reach a point that she felt able to say "Yes, I have Down syndrome" without embarrassment.
Dave, your comment to the father was terrific, and the comment that you do not want " make my difference into a bad thing to be" is superb. [Although I suspect that we will be waiting for Godot on this.....]

Anonymous said...

I disagree totally. I think the dad was right to say to the kid how would you like... that makes him realize that others have feelings too. Not many people grow up realizing this. It seems a much more important lesson than telling him that he's observant.
People always think crap about each other.... size, disability, hair style... u name it. If people could learn to juSt accept and go on we would all be better off.